Does an intuitive system really exist?


There is ONE question that we talk about all the time at work: is this system intuitive to use for the user?

Intuitive means: Easy to use or learn without any specific knowledge, able to realize or understand something because of feelings rather than facts or proof.

To put it in simpler words: You JUST know how to use it.

Back then, a very intuitive system for me would be a smartphone system. I just click the app and I understand everything – I know what to do without any special knowledge. A non-intuitive system would be the online platform of the financial office, as I have no idea what to read first and where to click – neither facts nor my sense of orientation help in this case.

After certain experiences, I’ve come to think more deeply about this question.


Story 1:

One year ago, my 77-year-old teacher purchased her first tablet. The first question she asked me was, “How should I unlock this thing?” and I said, “Hit the side button and swipe”. Then she asked: “What does that even mean?”

At that moment I realized that unlocking a tablet is quite difficult and not intuitive at all. It took my teacher quite some time to master the art of swiping, where to tap, how and how fast to move the finger on the surface. Then we faced our second challenge, which was how to record a video using the tablet and where to find the videos afterward.

During the teaching process, I had the chance to closely observe the operating system again and I was shocked by all the possibilities of “tapping somewhere else by accident”, as you end up somewhere else and have to figure out how to go back, what to do now or if you should simply start all over again.

That evening, I asked myself if I might have to face this kind of challenge when I get older. Am I going to not be able to operate all the new smart devices at some point?


Story 2:

Shortly after the tablet experience, I got an iPhone 11 for work. The last iPhone I had was a 4s, then I switched to Android phones for over 5 years.

As I started to use the iPhone 11, I realized there is no home button anymore. In consequence I didn’t know how to close an App while I am in it – I used to hit the home button! Where should I click now? Making screenshots was also not possible for me anymore because the button combination has been changed. No matter what I tried, it didn’t work. Shouldn’t this be an INTUITIVE system?

Thankfully I ran into colleagues who know the system better afterwards. They explained every operation to me. Two days later, however, I forgot everything I had just learned. I was quite unhappy with myself and realized: I don’t need to get older to be abandoned by smart devices, it is happening already!


Story 3:

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with an art student about modern art. At first, I claimed that if I couldn’t understand a painting or sculpture, it wouldn’t be a good piece of art to me. Art should be intuitive to understand.

She did not agree and argued that it could a lack of certain knowledge or information that makes you incapable of understanding an art piece at first glance. It is like listening to a musical piece – the more you understand music theory, the more you can recognize while listening and the more you will enjoy it. That is why there are so many introduction events for children in the art museum. This way children can gain knowledge about art at an early age, which makes it easier for them to understand art later.  

At that point I suddenly realized that we can’t operate a system without basic knowledge and information about it. I already have a tablet at home, thus, a new tablet is intuitive for me to use. I have used Android for over 5 years, I have gained enough knowledge on Android’s operating system which can only partly be adopted to an iPhone as it has another operating system integrated. Hence, working with an iPhone doesn’t feel intuitive to me.

Could the definition of intuitive as in “easy to use or learn without any specific knowledge, able to realize or understand something because of feelings rather than facts or proof” simply be false?

We still need previous knowledge in order to operate a system where we have more than two buttons.

We had a project in which our client asked our German UX designers to do a whole new design of an HMI system for a Chinese car. I asked our designers: “Is it difficult for you to start your draft from scratch? How could you as a German know what Chinese consumers find intuitive to use?”  

They told me: “We love projects where we can work freely. Besides, you don’t design from scratch. Everyone knows how to use smartphones. That’s why we use smartphone systems as our basic operation structure and logic, so you as the driver don’t need to learn anything new. In this case, this system is intuitive to use.”


Spiegel Institut offers full package services for HMI and operation system development for all industries. Feel free to contact us for cooperation:


Author: Yue Liu, Spiegel Institut Mannheim



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